Habits are hard to break because of the way the brain is wired. Each time you repeat a harmful behavior—overeating, overspending, procrastinating or something else—the brain circuits involved in that action become stronger. The brain associates the action with the situation that gave rise to it, such as being under stress. Over time, the brain becomes hardwired to choose that behavior automatically any time a similar situation arises.
Example: If you reach for a sugary snack whenever you are worried about a project at work, after a while, you may crave sugar the moment that you start feeling anxious about anything anywhere.
That’s the bad news. The good news: You can rewire your brain to choose constructive habits…
STEP 1: RELABEL
Negative habits are triggered by deceptive brain messages—thoughts, beliefs and impulses that run counter to your positive, healthy intentions. These thoughts and urges are accompanied by unpleasant emotions or physical sensations such as anger, sadness, anxiety or fatigue. Because the discomfort is so intense, you are driven to get rid of it as fast as you can, usually by indulging in an unhealthy habit. This brings temporary relief but in reality makes the situation worse—each time you give in, you further strengthen the brain pathways that connect the thought or urge with the bad habit.
Relabeling means recognizing your impulses and negative thoughts as deceptive brain messages and calling them what they are. It means simply noting to yourself what is happening, such as, I am having a craving even though I just ate 30 minutes ago or My boss just yelled at me, and because of that, now I need some chocolate. The more you are aware of these habits, the more opportunities you have to stop acting on them.
Becoming aware of these messages can be challenging at first. To develop your ability to relabel…
Practice making mental notes. Any time you feel “off” or uneasy in some way, notice what is going on in your body or mind, and pick a simple word or phrase to describe it. For example, if you notice that you are thinking about a conversation with a friend that went awry—when you really need to be working—say to yourself, Mind wandering. If you are having physical symptoms, such as heart pounding, shakiness, feeling a pit in your stomach, note this as anxiety. The key is to snap yourself back into awareness—which is the first step toward doing something about the situation in a healthy, productive way.
Focus on your breathing. One way to enhance your ability to notice what’s happening in a moment-to-moment way is by focusing on your breath. For five minutes, sit in a quiet place, close your eyes and simply pay attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale. What you will find as you try to do this is that your brain is constantly running, thinking about plans for later in the week or stressing about what you have to do today. Whenever you realize that you have become lost in thought in these ways, say to yourself, Thinking or Planning or Wandering, then gently turn your focus back to your breathing.
Do this focused breathing exercise once a day, and gradually extend the length of time to 20 or 30 minutes.
STEP 2: REFRAME
As you become aware of deceptive brain messages, you can begin changing your perception of their importance. You do this by reframing—challenging your default response.
Reframing does not mean denying the existence of a thought or impulse or judging yourself for having it. Instead, you look at the thought from a new perspective and diminish its importance so that you do not automatically react in your habitual way.
Example: I feel upset right now, but that doesn’t mean I have to have a cigarette (or that I am a bad person because I am craving one).
To change your perspective…
Use distancing phrases. When you notice a deceptive brain message, say to yourself, That’s not me, it’s just my brain…or Oh, that’s just mental chatter…or I’m having a bad brain day.
Look for thinking errors. We often make inaccurate assumptions about difficult situations and painful feelings. To uncover these erroneous, unhelpful thoughts, ask yourself nonjudgmental questions, such as, What is it about this situation that is upsetting me? What am I telling myself about what is happening? What are some other interpretations?
Common thinking errors include…
All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing situations and people in extremes, such as perfect or hopeless, all good or all bad.
Worst-case thinking: Assuming that something terrible inevitably is going to happen.
Discounting the positive: Ignoring your good qualities and failing to notice or take seriously other people’s positive reactions toward you.
Be compassionate with yourself. Write down the deceptive brain message—the thought, sensation or impulse—that is bothering you. Then ask yourself what a kindhearted friend would advise or think.
Use the 15-minute rule. When you experience an especially powerful impulse, try to wait 15 minutes before you act. Then if you still cannot resist the urge, slowly and mindfully engage in the activity that your deceptive brain message is insisting upon.
Important: Do not try to talk yourself out of an uncomfortable feeling. Simply examine it. You are training yourself to be less frightened of discomfort, to learn that it will pass and that it is not such a big deal.
STEP 3: REFOCUS
Once you have relabeled and reframed a deceptive brain message, you may find it surprisingly easy to actively shift your attention to a healthy, constructive activity—even as your deceptive thoughts are urging you to act in your old, habitual way. By refocusing repeatedly, you weaken the brain circuits associated with your cravings and retrain your brain to choose healthier responses when you are stressed or sad.
The best refocusing activities are ones that engage and interest you. If they require strategy or learning something new, they will be even more effective, but any wholesome activity that you enjoy is fine.
Examples: Do a crossword puzzle…read…exercise…call a friend…play with a pet…sing a song…pursue a hobby…cook a healthy recipe.
If you are at work, refocus on a task that you can accomplish quickly or that is less demanding.
What makes this step powerful is that you allow uncomfortable sensations and impulses to be present…but then you act constructively anyway. You are learning that the messages do not have to dominate your attention or control your actions. You are training your brain to create new associations between thoughts and healthy actions. This takes patience.
STEP 4: REVALUE
The final step is really about gaining perspective and the strength to believe in yourself. Each person gets there at his/her own pace, and when you do, you can look at the deceptive brain message and unhelpful impulses and simply say to yourself, This is nothing more than the feeling of a deceptive brain message. I do not have to act on it, and it does not define me. The more you are able to relabel, reframe and refocus, the more empowered you will be to dismiss those deceptive brain messages and move on with your life in a positive direction—one that you define. That’s the essence of revalue and the goal of the four steps.
Source: Rebecca Gladding, MD, staff psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration California Healthcare System. She recently served as a clinical instructor and medical director of the UCLA Adult Inpatient Eating Disorders Program. She is coauthor of You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life (Avery).